Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke

From My Shelf

For Fans of Little Fires Everywhere

In the opening pages of Celeste Ng's 2017 novel, Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin, $17), the young Isabelle Richardson has just set fire to her family's home. It's an introduction rife with tension and drama that speaks to what's to come. It's also the kind of drama that lends itself well to on-screen adaptation, as evidenced by Hulu's debut of the series Little Fires Everywhere last week.

This incredibly talented writer explores big, complicated subjects like motherhood, family, belonging and art, to name a few. Her debut, Everything I Never Told You (Penguin, $17), carefully reveals the many stories that the Lee family keeps from each other in the months leading up to the inexplicable death of their 16-year-old daughter, Lydia. In both of her novels, Ng displays an uncanny ability to explore the messy gray areas of complex questions: Who gets to raise a child, and how? Should secrets ever be kept? What does it mean to be understood? Is there a right and a wrong, and if so, what happens when it isn't obvious which is which?

On the surface, neither Angie Kim's Miracle Creek nor Bryn Greenwood's All the Ugly and Wonderful Things seem that similar to Ng's novels. Miracle Creek (Sarah Crichton, $27) centers on a courtroom drama following the explosion of a controversial alternative medicine clinic; All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (Griffin, $15.99) features the daughter of a drug dealer and her relationship with a much older employee of her father. But like Ng's novels, both shine in the ways they explore impossible, unanswerable questions. Any of these four would make excellent fodder for book club discussion while you await the next episodes of Little Fires Everywhere.

Sleeping Bear Press: When You Go Into Nature by Sheri M Bestor, Illustrated by Sydney Hanson

Book Candy

'Lockdown,' the Poem

British poet laureate Simon Armitage has written a poem, "Lockdown," about the coronavirus outbreak.


Merriam-Webster offered "a guide to coronavirus-related words."


"Okay, now the last lines of 10 classic novels, rewritten for social distancing." (via Lit Hub)


Mental Floss explored "what the death of the Apostrophe Protection Society means for grammarians."


From Homer to Hilary Mantel, Benjamin Myers recommended his picks for "top 10 mentors in fiction" in the Guardian.

A Wish in the Dark

by Christina Soontornvat

A boy born a prisoner and reborn to the world through compassion, a lion-hearted girl obsessed with reclaiming her family's honor, and an oppressed lower class ready to take a stand converge in a magical city of light in a Thai-inspired fantasy. In this tween-friendly variation on Victor Hugo's classic novel Les Misérables, Thai-American author Christina Soontornvat (Diary of an Ice Princess series) opens a gateway to a glorious world swirling with wishes and secrets under thousands of magical colored lights.

Once upon a time, the city of Chattana boasted such magical wonders as tree-tall giants, singing fish and floating markets selling "cakes frosted with good luck." The city grew, but "magic doesn't like a crowd" and "the wonders thinned away." Then catastrophe struck. In Chattana's present, magic underlies everyday life in much the same ubiquitous, nearly invisible manner as electricity, but access is tightly controlled. The glowing orbs Chattana's citizens use to light their homes, cook their food and power their machines come in a spectrum of color and strength, with the cheaper Violet and Blue suitable only for producing dim light, and the most expensive, Jade and Gold, capable of running heavy machinery and producing the purest, brightest light. The color of light has become a symbol of not only wealth and status, but of worth and righteousness. 

The law requires nine-year-old orphan Pong, born to a prisoner at Namwon Women's Reform Center upriver from Chattana, to remain incarcerated until he turns 13. He secretly dreams of working for the Governor, Chattana's savior and ruler, whose magic is the sole power source of every orb in the city. When the Governor comes to inspect the prison, though, a misunderstanding on the part of the warden's daughter, Nok, dashes Pong's dreams. "Light shines only on the worthy," the Governor scolds, adding that no worth lies in anyone "born in darkness." Crushed by the epiphany that a thief's son has no future in the City of Rules, Pong instinctively seizes a breathtaking escape opportunity. In the outside world, Pong is a fugitive and the Namwon tattoo on his wrist will proclaim his escapee status to any who see it. If caught, he will return to prison for life. Alone and starving, Pong stumbles upon a rural temple and meets Father Cham, a wry, wise soul with mysterious powers whose boundless compassion changes the course of Pong's life. 

Four years later, 13-year-old Nok Sivapan has a dilemma. She has long guessed that she is her father's biological child but not her mother's. Now society has begun to whisper about her birth, and her mother wants her sent away to quell the scandal. Nok has always worked to make her parents proud, winning Chattana's citywide spire-fighting championship and staying at the head of her class in school. Now she plans to change the gossips' tune with an impressive feat--but first she has to come up with one. Visiting a remote village with her parents, Nok recognizes a young monk as the boy whose escape caused her father to lose his position as warden at Namwon. If she can bring this fugitive to justice, surely no one will question her worth as a daughter. Her relentless pursuit will drive Pong into Chattana's aching, impoverished heart, where rumblings of discontent and protest are stirring, even as it drives Nok herself into the dark truth of her own origin.

While building a children's story on the scaffolding of Les Misérables may sound perilously ambitious, Soontornvat demonstrates an innate sense of how to distill a masterwork down to its timeless essentials and remix them with kid-friendly elements. By loosely preserving Hugo's central trinity of the runaway prisoner who turns to good works, the self-righteous agent of justice who believes people cannot change, and the holy man who understands that only compassion saves souls, she builds depth and maturity into this thrilling adventure. In this fascinating, alternate Thailand, where an attentive person might hear the ripeness of a mango and a skilled martial artist can funnel her own energy through her staff, sparks of magic and mystery illuminate a complex and flawed social structure. Pong and Nok both grow in their understanding of morality as a separate construct from law or societal norm, a concept middle-graders are likely beginning to explore in their own lives. Often traveling among the disenfranchised, the narrative encourages empathy and critical thinking by confronting timeless stereotypes about poverty children have potentially already heard. Soontornvat here offers a bridge to classic literature that asks its readers to imagine a better world. Limned by magic and imbued with social commentary, A Wish in the Dark casts a beguiling spell. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Candlewick Press, $17.99, hardcover, 384p., ages 10-14, 9781536204940

Christina Soontornvat: Composing Light, Compassion and Magic

(photo: Sam Bond)

Christina Soontornvat grew up in a small Texas town, where she spent many childhood days behind the counter of her parents' Thai restaurant with her nose in a book. She now lives in Austin, Tex., with her husband and two children. Soontornvat recently took a few moments during a school visit tour to chat with us about Victor Hugo, compassion and A Wish in the Dark.

How did you decide to turn Les Miserables into a kid's story?

I was introduced to Les Mis when I was about 10 years old, on a trip to visit family in Thailand. My mom was reading the book. I think she chose it because, at that time, there was very little English media over there, so she just grabbed the biggest book she could find. She read it during the day, and at bedtime she would recap the story for me. Even though it is a mature story and I couldn't read the novel until I was an adult, the characters and the situations they got into hooked me. I knew it had the power to be a story that connected with kids. There are big questions and moral predicaments in the novel that middle-grade readers are eager to tackle. When you are 10 to 13 years old, you are ready to start breaking out of this tidy version of the world you've been learning about.

How did you develop the fantasy elements?

Almost everything I write is fantasy. Even if I start a realistic story, a dragon will pop up. I struggled at first with Father Cham's magical powers. I worried, "Am I crossing a line by imbuing a religious figure with magical powers?" However, Thai Buddhism has some elements that we in the West might think of as magic, though it's not the way they think of it. I grew up with Buddhist family members who talked about making wishes, having good fortune, and ghosts and spirits that looked after us. It's similar to the magical realism of Latin-American literary tradition, in that magic is not something that is different or strange, it's a part of everyday life.

Some of my earliest memories of Thailand are of being a toddler and being out on the water at night and seeing so many lights. They seemed like magic, so that's what I wanted to give a magical element to. There are also ceremonies, festivals and celebrations involving light all over Asia. In Thailand, there are many occasions where you light a candle, you make a wish or say a prayer and you send the light up into the sky or out on the river.

What does being an #ownvoices author mean to you?

I'm aware that I'm standing on the shoulders of people who came before me, advocates like the authors who founded We Need Diverse Books, who have done so much to crack open the field and make space for diverse voices. Mine is not the only Asian middle grade fantasy written by an Asian author coming in 2020 and 2021. It's wonderful, and it's high time. If I'd had a book like this when I was younger, it would have meant the world to me. You don't know how much you wanted something until it's put in front of you, and then you think, "Oh, that's what I've been missing!" When your culture is represented in a book, it's a signal that you matter, especially in fantasy, because it has been dominated for so long by Western mythology and fairy tales.

Fantasy has also been male-dominated, but your version of Javert is a strong female character.

She's a more innocent and childlike version of Javert in that she's lived a life of great privilege. Over the course of the book, she confronts that privilege. Thai culture is at times patriarchal, so having a female who's physically strong and strong-willed was important to me. Her path does not mirror Javert's path because she changes her worldview. She has moments when her world gets flipped upside-down, and she realizes everything she has learned is wrong. She changes instead of despairing--that's the source of her heroism.

The Governor displays some of Javert's negative traits.

I always felt some sympathy for Javert. I hope it's clear the Governor comes from a place of good intentions. Even if you look at what's going wrong in our own world and people who are doing cruel things, they often start off trying to do the right thing. But even the best intentions are meaningless if they lead to acts of cruelty.

As opposed to choosing compassion.

The light in my story is a metaphor for compassion. The Governor thinks you need to earn it and not everyone deserves it. In opposition, Father Cham says, "What if we just give it to everyone?" It shouldn't be a radical idea, but it is. It would have taken me a lot longer to understand if it had not been for the books I read. Reading Les Miserables changed me. Literature does many things, but the most important is to foster empathy. Eighteenth-century France or a fantasy story set in Thailand, both empower you to have empathy.

What can we expect from you in the future?

My nonfiction book about the Thai cave rescue comes out in September. I was in Thailand when the events took place, and I went back to do research, conduct interviews and meet the soccer team. I had done research about Thailand and Buddhism for A Wish in the Dark, not realizing it would also be useful for the Thai cave rescue story. Buddhism and spirituality were so important to the kids and their coach when they were waiting to be found. They waited for 10 days, and they got through it with meditation and prayer.

I also have another middle grade fantasy coming, an adventure on the high seas about a girl who's an assistant to a mapmaker. She thinks she's running away from her old life, but she's running all the way around the globe only to have to confront her past--and there are dragons in the waters. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969) concocts an extraterrestrial microorganism capable of inflicting catastrophic damage on the human body despite a lack of DNA or other structures compatible with life as we know it. When a military satellite lands near Piedmont, Ariz., all but two of the town's residents are killed by instantaneous blood clotting. Dr. Jeremy Stone, leader of a secret scientist squad called Wildfire, takes these two survivors--an alcoholic old man and an infant--to the team's laboratory under the Nevada desert. The base's high security includes a nuclear self-destruct mechanism, which can be turned off only by the team's single unmarried member, and a plethora of other protections that the titular pathogen inevitably overcomes.

The Andromeda Strain launched Crichton's career as a techno-thriller superstar. It was adapted into a film in 1971 and a miniseries in 2008. In November 2019, Daniel H. Wilson continued the Andromeda Strain universe with The Andromeda Evolution (Harper), which spreads a new version of the strain to the Amazon rain forest. In 2017, a 50th anniversary edition of The Andromeda Strain was published by Vintage ($15.95, 9781101974490). --Tobias Mutter

Book Review



by Amina Cain

Vitória, a museum cleaner, dreams of a different life in Amina Cain's first novel, Indelicacy. Set in an indistinct Victorian era, Vitória's candid revelations about her inner life make this a compelling and carefully drawn character study. When not working, she's writing, inspired by the museum's paintings. She marries a rich man in order to stop working and write regularly. Her husband thinks he's rescued her, but she proves a willful partner. "Why had I chosen him?" she wonders. "Had it been for survival, for experience? Both of these things, I guess."

Vitória fashions intellectual freedoms within the marriage to satisfy her needs, cultivating female friendships and artistic enrichment. She continues to write, often for hours a day. She says, "It's true I did want everything he gave me, but I will die if I can't write and then I will have wasted my life." She knows she's harsh, and says, "I didn't want to be invisible, though sometimes I treated others as though they themselves were." When she wants to leave her husband, she manipulates events so that he leaves instead. Still, after their separation, she admits to uncertainty about her choice to live alone. She realizes that her writing, which is her most authentic voice, may be "too much of my own self. I am stalking my own soul." Yet she concludes, "Still in the process of becoming, the soul makes room." Cain (Creature) works with insight and finely crafted writing, making Indelicacy perfect for fans of Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: In this penetrating debut novel, a Victorian woman struggles to create her own intellectual freedoms.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, hardcover, 176p., 9780374148379

The Jetsetters

by Amanda Eyre Ward

When 71-year-old Charlotte Perkins wins a 10-day Mediterranean cruise, she dreams of an unforgettable vacation with her adult children, all together again. What she doesn't acknowledge is the three generations of family dysfunction that would travel with them. In Amanda Eyre Ward's warmhearted novel The Jetsetters, the Perkins family secrets reveal themselves even before they set sail.

Long-time widow Charlotte lives contentedly in her Savannah condo, soothing loneliness with walks, wine and steamy novels. Ignored by her parents and raised by a nanny, she acquiesced in marriage to cold and distant Winston, and their three children grew up targets of his alcoholic rage. By the time she was six, Lee was striving to protect little brother Cord and baby Regan. Winston's death when they were young was liberating but also haunting. As Charlotte plans the cruise, she has no idea that the siblings' lives are imploding. Lee's acting career, romance and finances are failing. Cord, in a risky business venture, is tenuously staying sober and giddy with love for Giovanni--but has yet to tell his family he's gay. Regan, an apparently happy wife and mother, knows her husband is unfaithful. But they gamely board the Splendido Marveloso, bearing the baggage of their delusions and deceptions.

Fluorescent drinks, Fun Day at Sea parties, quirky shipmates and quick peeks at Europe's sights are entertaining, but the family's angst isn't masked. Togetherness awakens their childhood affections and support, however, and the post-cruise forecast--especially Charlotte's--is hopeful in Ward's (The Same Sky; The Nearness of You) heartening and tender novel. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, independent reviewer

Discover: In this sunny novel, a widow hopes a 10-day cruise with her three adult children will create joyful family togetherness in spite of their history.

Ballantine Books, $28, hardcover, 352p., 9780399181894


by Daniel Kehlmann, trans. by Ross Benjamin

Tyll is a fresh reimagining of the impish German folk character of the same name, updated by Daniel Kehlmann and translated from the German by Ross Benjamin. The story of Tyll Ulenspiegel (aka Till Eulenspiegel) has been known since the 1300s. This version takes place during the Thirty Years' War, the 17th-century religious conflict in central Europe, and demonstrates how folklore continues to remain relevant over time.

Tyll grows up in a poor German village where life is full of superstition and brutality. After his father is hanged for practicing magic, young Tyll runs off. He "can't stop wondering where you would end up if you just kept going on and on." His skills at acrobatics and rhetorical trickery turn into an itinerant life of performing throughout Europe. He encounters a strong cast of supporting characters, including exiled royalty, dishonest priests and honorable thieves. These, along with Kehlmann's sumptuous descriptions of actions and setting, mimic the oral storytelling tradition--"sentences so perfectly constructed that they were beyond anything you yourself could ever have managed..."--from which Tyll arises.

Tyll symbolizes freedom during a time when religious and political conformity is the law, showing "what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one." Toward the end Tyll says, "When things get tight, I leave.... I'm not going to die!" Thus the author serves notice that stories of Tyll Ulenspiegel's adventures are not yet finished. Grand storytelling and a deep understanding of human impulses make Tyll a wonderful read. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: Tyll breathes new life into the early European folk character Tyll Ulenspiegel, with a sweeping story of 17th-century danger and adventure.

Pantheon, $26.95, hardcover, 352p., 9781524747466

142 Ostriches

by April Dávila

April Dávila's first novel is wise, moving and beautifully rendered. She sets 142 Ostriches on Wishbone Ranch, an ostrich farm in Sombra, a remote California town entrenched in the Mojave Desert.

The heroine, 24-year-old Tallulah Jones, is ready to fly the coop to take a Forest Service job in Montana when her Grandma Helen dies in a mysterious car crash. She is the person who rescued 13-year-old Tallulah from her irresponsible, alcoholic mother in Oakland, Calif., and brought her to live on the ostrich ranch 11 years ago. The news derails and defers Tallulah's plans. All along, Helen had groomed Tallulah to take over the 50-year-old ranch. She was adamantly opposed to her granddaughter's plans to escape to Montana. This leaves Tallulah to question the timing of her grandmother's death: Was it really an accident?

Helen's absence reunites and unsettles the extended family. This includes Tallulah's estranged mother, Laura; aunt Christine, a level-headed wife and mother who lives nearby; and erratic recovering meth-addict uncle Steve. When everyone learns that Helen has bequeathed the ostrich farm to Tallulah, emotions and rebelliousness run high in the family--and in the ostrich flock, when the sensitive birds suddenly stop laying eggs. Contentiousness further escalates when Tallulah considers selling the farm.

She is a young woman faced with difficult choices in her quest to rise above the perils of familial dysfunction. The result, Dávila's stellar debut, is infused with richly drawn characters, tightly focused suspense and authentic detail about farm and desert life. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger atReading Between the Lines

Discover: A deeply moving story about a young woman who inherits an ostrich ranch and must fight family strife and dysfunction.

Kensington, $15.95, paperback, 272p., 9781496724700


Undercover Bromance

by Lyssa Kay Adams

The Bromance Book Club, the first in this edgy rom-com series, focused on Thea Scott's marital woes with her husband, Gavin--a professional baseball player who led a book club where accomplished Nashville men covertly discuss romance novels. In the second installment, Thea's headstrong, sarcastic sister, Olivia "Liv" Papandreas, takes the lead.  

Distrustful of men, single Liv works as a pastry chef at an upscale restaurant owned by celebrity chef Royce Preston. Liv's world is turned upside down when Braden Mack, a local nightclub owner--and member of the Bromance Book Club--comes to dine at the restaurant. In an effort to impress his latest conquest, Mack orders the restaurant's signature dessert--a $1,000 chocolate cupcake featuring edible gold ornaments and served with a 24-carat-gold spoon. When Liv drops the pricey cupcake into the lap of Mack's new lady friend, her career plummets. Matters grow worse when Liv later witnesses Royce forcing a female staffer into a compromising position. Mack's empathy for Liv's sudden unemployment, coupled with news of Royce's predatory behavior, urges him to ally forces with Liv and members of the book club to take down Royce. Inspired in their quest by wisdom gleaned from a dark romantic suspense novel, the book club members also coach Mack on how romantically to woo jaded Liv.

The quick-witted banter between Liv and Mack rises like cream to the top of this smartly conceived romance. In Undercover Bromance, Lyssa Kay Adams dishes up snarky, high-octane laughs, serious themes and delicious plot twists. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: In this smart, snarky rom-com, an out-of-work pastry chef and a nightclub owner set out to take down a celebrity chef who's a sexual predator.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 352p., 9781984806116

The Honey-Don't List

by Christina Lauren

Christina Lauren's The Honey-Don't List is a delightful contemporary romantic comedy following two relationships, one imploding rather spectacularly and the other forming amid the wreckage. In the 10 years that Carey has worked for them, Rusty and Melissa Tripp have gone from co-owners of a furniture store to wildly popular home-improvement reality TV show hosts. They're America's most beloved couple and are about to embark on a tour for their marriage self-help book, but behind the scenes, they're miserable. Out of loyalty and necessity--she has a disability that requires excellent medical insurance--Carey has stayed by their side, managing far more than any assistant should have to.

Reeling from a career setback, James is hired as an engineer for the show but is unexpectedly charged with preventing a sloppy and unfaithful Rusty from ruining his public image. Reluctant allies, James and Carey find themselves trapped on a bus with the Tripps, trying to manage an acrimonious relationship, tour logistics and their own burgeoning feelings. With such an impossible task before them, they can't afford to be distracted. And they absolutely shouldn't be falling for each other.

Christina Lauren (The Unhoneymooners; Josh & Hazel's Guide to Not Dating) has created charming protagonists to root for. Beyond romance, Carey and James strive for career success on their terms--without the Tripps. And despite witnessing first-hand the ways in which a long-term relationship can sour, this young couple dares to hope, to dream and to fall in love. --Suzanne Krohn, editor, Love in Panels

Discover: In this touching romantic comedy, two assistants scramble to save the reputation of the not-so-perfect married hosts of a home-improvement show, while building a relationship of their own.

Gallery Books, $16, paperback, 320p., 9781982123918

Biography & Memoir

Shadow on the Mountain: A Yazidi Memoir of Terror, Resistance and Hope

by Shaker Jeffrey, Katharine Holstein

Shadow on the Mountain is a gripping memoir of hopeful resilience in the face of unimaginable horror and heartbreak. For many centuries, the Yazidi people have practiced a pacifist monotheistic faith distinct from the Abrahamic religions. They have been persecuted many times over their history, primarily by Muslims who mistakenly brand them as devil worshipers. Indigenous to Iraq, Syria and Turkey, most reside in northern Iraq, around Mount Sinjar. In August 2014, ISIS launched genocidal attacks on this Yazidi population, killing or enslaving tens of thousands. The survivors fled to Sinjar, though without food, water or military aid, that sanctuary would not last long.

Shaker Jeffrey was among the Yazidis trapped on his people's sacred mountain. It was not, however, his first time in a war zone. During the American occupation of Iraq, he was an interpreter between U.S. soldiers, Iraqi civilians and the Iraqi army; he was shot multiple times and narrowly survived IEDs. He also developed lifelong friendships with his American commanding officers, who were vital advocates for armed intervention against the unfolding Yazidi genocide in 2014. Night after night, Jeffrey crept down Sinjar and relayed coordinates of ISIS fighters and prisoners to the other side of the globe. His information saved hundreds of women and children from slavery and guided American airstrikes in the days ahead.

Every part of Jeffrey's life is fascinating, from his village upbringing, his time with the American military and especially his bravery against ISIS. He displays a depth of strength and character, rendered beautifully with the help of Katharine Holstein, that is utterly inspiring. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer

Discover: This is the inspiring memoir of a Yazidi interpreter with American occupation forces in Iraq who helped save thousands of his people from ISIS.

Da Capo Press, $29, hardcover, 320p., 9780306922831

Political Science

A Citizen's Guide to Beating Donald Trump

by David Plouffe

In his introduction to A Citizen's Guide to Beating Donald Trump, David Plouffe, who was Barack Obama's campaign manager, writes, "The year 2016 will scar us for as long as we breathe the same air that Trump befouls with his every word." Why mince words, David Plouffe? Tell us how you really feel!

A Citizen's Guide to Beating Donald Trump forges ahead in this engagingly exercised vein. Plouffe offers a crash course in the American electoral system; supplies an invaluable chapter on battleground states; provides practical tools, like loose scripts to use on undecided voters; and assures readers of volunteerism's social rewards. He's an amiable taskmaster ("Yup, you naysayers are going to have to reactivate your Facebook and Twitter accounts") whose advice is often reinforced with stories from the Obama campaign trail. At times, Plouffe, who also wrote The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory, comes across as a nostalgic elder seizing the opportunity to relive his glory days for a captive audience, but given his role in Obama's momentous win, he's earned the right.

A Citizen's Guide to Beating Donald Trump may not tell a seasoned political activist anything she doesn't already know, but it's a superb jumping-off point for anyone new to volunteerism and energized for the fight in the fall of 2020--no matter what side a person is on. (Plouffe's tips can theoretically be of equal use to someone playing for the other team.) --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: Barack Obama's campaign manager directs his invigorating call to action at activists hell-bent on unseating President Trump in fall 2020.

Viking, $25, hardcover, 256p., 9781984879493

Social Science

Abandoned: America's Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection

by Anne Kim

Drawing on extensive research and firsthand interviews with young adults across the United States, Abandoned offers a comprehensive look into the problems of disconnection in rising generations and "aims to bring [the] emerging discipline of youth policy into the mainstream." A journalist and lawyer with a public policy focus, Anne Kim succeeds in this aim; while the content of Abandoned is academic in nature, it is never dry, and the combination of data and anecdotes will appeal to policy wonks and general readers alike.

Kim explores recent science around adolescence and young adulthood as a formative period of a person's life before considering what disconnection looks like and how it is that nearly 4.5 million young people (or 11.5% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 24) are not participating in either school or work. She documents the "systems and institutions" (such as foster care and the criminal justice system) intended to help young people that have instead exacerbated the problem, and then offers concrete examples of programs that are working and policy suggestions that could better support young adults at minimal cost.

Kim is practical about the problems of disconnection. She addresses the many ways that racism, classism and privilege intersect to create pathways to opportunity for some, but not other, young adults, and outlines the hardships many disconnected youths face. But key to her approach--and suggested solutions--is an emphasis on the opportunity being overlooked in this population's untapped potential. "The investment we make in our young adults is a reflection of our collective vision for the county's future," she writes. Abandoned is a road map for what that vision could be. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm 

Discover: This comprehensive overview of the problem of disconnection among young adults in the U.S. offers proven solutions and concrete policy recommendations.

The New Press, $25.99, hardcover, 208p., 9781620975008

Performing Arts

Screening Reality: How Documentary Filmmakers Reimagined America

by Jon Wilkman

Many people bemoan living in a "post-truth" age, nostalgic for a world before social media when facts were indisputable. But as documentarian Jon Wilkman meticulously reveals in Screening Reality, the question of fact vs. fiction is as old as the earliest "actualities" from the 19th century.

At the end of World War I, America's Answer thrilled patriotic audiences with gripping images of life on the front lines; by World War II, screened reality was given the "Hollywood touch." In between the wars, In the Land of the Head Hunters and Nanook of the North added dramatic flair to tell the story of "exotic" North American Indigenous peoples, while the anti-capitalist The Plow that Broke the Plains reflected the rise of radicalism in the 1930s.

Along with the advent of television, two new styles of filmmaking--direct cinema and cinéma verité--put the camera and its subject front and center. Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies shocked audiences with its look at inmates at a mental institution; The Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens followed the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy living in squalor; PBS's An American Family presaged the rise of reality TV with its chronicle of an "average" family in 1973. All courted controversy, garnering accusations of voyeurism and exploitation. By the end of the 20th century, establishment documentarians like Ken Burns celebrated the best of the United States alongside provocateurs like Michael Moore, who exposed its hypocrisies.

Today, technology has enabled everyone to be a content creator, democratizing the genre and providing a platform for women and minorities to tell their stories--as well as disruptors who sow seeds of doubt at every turn. Celebratory yet cautionary, Screening Reality provides a fresh perspective. --Frank Brasile, librarian

Discover: This illuminating, comprehensive history of nonfiction filmmaking examines how truth has been represented on screen since the first moving image.

Bloomsbury, $35, hardcover, 512p., 9781635571035

Children's & Young Adult

The Only Black Girls in Town

by Brandy Colbert

Stonewall Book Award-winning author Brandy Colbert (Little & Lion) tactfully covers friendship, race and identity in her middle-grade debut, The Only Black Girls in Town.

Twelve-year-old Alberta is a California surfer girl who has a pretty good life with her two dads in a quiet, mostly white beach town. Though she is comfortable in her own skin, "part of being Alberta is being black. And I don't blend in here in Ewing Beach." When a new girl, Edie, and her mother move in across the street, Alberta is excited about the opportunity to become friends with another black girl her age. But Edie is a goth Brooklynite who seems to be Alberta's opposite in style, attitude and personality. Alberta is conflicted: Would Edie really want to be her friend, or would she feel obligated to be friends because they're both black? The girls begin to grow close when they find a collection of mysterious journals. As they piece together the life of a woman named Constance, they discover how complicated people's identities can be and how deeply the past can both affect and mirror the future.

The Only Black Girls in Town should appeal to those who enjoyed The Parker Inheritance and You Go First; Colbert's well-articulated prose captures the difficulties of tween years without skirting around tough topics like racism, menstruation and bullying. Alberta and Edie's friendship feels genuine as they overcome their initial hesitations and have empathetic moments (as well as fights) that will ring true for readers. Colbert's first middle-grade novel truly shines. --Clarissa Hadge, freelance reviewer

Discover: Seventh graders Alberta and Edie bond over their racial identities and a series of mysterious journals in Brandy Colbert's middle-grade debut.

Little, Brown, $16.99, hardcover, 368p., ages 10-up, 9780316456388

The Oracle Code

by Marieke Nijkamp, illus. by Manuel Preitano

Author Marieke Nijkamp and illustrator Manuel Preitano develop an origin story for DC hero Oracle (Barbara Gordon) in this atmospheric graphic novel.

Late one night in Gotham City, the impetuous Babs Gordon, daughter of the police commissioner and a brilliant coder, is hit by a stray bullet and left paralyzed from the waist down. Her father sends her to the Arkham Center for Independence for rehabilitation, but Babs struggles to warm up to the staff's attempts at helping her recover. Not particularly interested in new friendships, it is a surprise to Babs that she develops a relationship with Jena, whose parents died in a horrific fire. Jena wanders into Babs's room one night looking for her missing brother and stays, telling Babs nightmarish fairytales that strangely mirror real life. When Jena also disappears, it's up to Babs to unlock the center's sinister secrets.

Creepy halls, secret doorways and menacing caretakers make this coming-of-age graphic novel a suspenseful thriller. Nijkamp (Before I Let Go) successfully makes the jump from prose to comics here, evenly balancing the portrayal of Babs's mental and physical recovery with the mystery narrative. The teen slowly and believably comes to terms with how her body's abilities have changed, and readers are never meant to feel sorry for her. Preitano's (co-creator of the Destiny, NY series) moody art accentuates the story's foreboding atmosphere; colorists Jordie Bellaire and Manuel Preitano's dark purples and blues highlight dangerous plot points and use a lighter palette for the more hopeful moments. The Oracle Code is a propulsive collaboration for both novice readers of superhero comics and those well-versed in this arena. --Shelley Diaz, supervising librarian, BookOps: New York Public Library & Brooklyn Public Library

Discover: As part of a growing line of DC graphic novel origin stories for young readers, The Oracle Code dives into the teenage years of Barbara Gordon, aka Oracle.

DC Comics, $16.99, paperback, 208p., ages 10-14, 9781401290665


Author Buzz

Dragon Kiss
(A Dragon Kings Novella)

by Donna Grant

Dear Reader,

Welcome back to the Dragon Kings! I'm thrilled to bring you DRAGON KISS. The world of the Dragon Kings keeps expanding, and this story brings us Alasdair and Lotti, a powerful couple who have overcome all odds to find love. But a deadly enemy intends to rip them apart.

I can't wait for you to fall in love with Alasdair and Lotti as I have.


Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: 1001 Dark Nights Press: Dragon Kiss (A Dragon Kings Novella) by Donna Grant

1001 Dark Nights Press

Pub Date: 
January 9, 2024


List Price: 
$2.99 e-book

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